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Monitoring a Tropical Paradise

Envs Kiho Kim

This past summer, coral reefs in Guam underwent a mass bleaching event. This means that the algae living in the corals and providing them with nutrients were released into the water during a period of high seawater temperatures. When the warming period ended, some of the corals recovered but many died. This event is called “bleaching” due to the resulting loss of color in the corals, oftentimes turning them white.

Professor Kiho Kim, a marine ecologist specializing in tropical coral reefs, has been monitoring the recovery of coral reefs in Guam following this mass bleaching event as part of a RAPID grant awarded to him by the National Science Foundation. The grant is designed to fund researchers in scientific fields whose projects are considered very timely.

“Corals have been bleaching and recovering for eons, as long as they’ve been around,” Kim says. “But this particular bleaching event was really expansive and intense, and it gave us this idea to follow the event and see how the patterns of recovery varied from place to place on Guam and if that recovery is affected by the intensity of coastal development.”

Coastal development in Guam has increased significantly as the population grows, which Kim says undermines the health of the corals by causing more severe bleaching and slower recovery. With the grant funding, Kim was able to work with a colleague at the University of Guam this past January to set up monitoring stations around individual coral colonies.

“You can tag a coral the same way you can tag a tree,” Kiho says. “So we know what the conditions of these corals were—some were sick, some were healthy—and we could track them over time.”

Kim wasn’t the only person from the College studying the reefs. Kim engages undergraduate and graduate students on each of his projects.

“Science is kind of like an apprenticeship you bring people through, to teach them how to do things and think about problems,” Kim says. He enjoys working with undergraduates in particular, who he has the chance to work with for a number of years. Some of them even publish articles with Kim on research that they have carried out together.

“This past summer I had great fun taking an undergrad with me to Guam and to a place called Chuuk, which is in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean,” Kim says. Meaghan Cuddy, then a sophomore, worked with Kim to assess the health of the seagrasses, which serve as a major food source for many animals in the ocean, and to understand how pollution is affecting the grasses in different parts of Guam.

“I see mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs as a connected ecosystem,” Kim says, “And so in order for me to really understand what's happening out on the coral reefs I need to know what's happening on the seagrasses that lead up to the coral reefs and the mangroves which border land and ocean. So I have students working on all three and connecting the ecosystems.”

Kim and Cuddy spent a week and a half going to different sites around Guam, measuring samples and getting information from the field. They also spent time in Chuuk visiting a South Korean-run marine lab.

“It was great to take a student along with me to Chuuk,” Kim says, “Because not only did Meaghan get to see the field, but she got to talk to graduate students, postdoctoral students, and faculty. I know that she impressed the heck out of everybody and learned a ton from that experience.”

Kim cautions against the impression that there is any perfect way to communicate ecosystem conservation to the public.

“A lot of people talk about the decline of corals and coral reefs, because they are so vital to the ecosystem. There is no magic bullet in getting people to become aware but I do what I can in that regard.”

Kim has more trips planned for Guam in May and August, and will be taking students along each time.